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FICTION

Can of Corn
By Bonnie Thompson

 

This happened quite a while ago, before I really understood what long relief meant; before I had ever felt the world teeter like a coin on its edge as a pitcher painstakingly frittered a magnificent oh and two into a grueling, attenuated full count.

It started in a college commons area. My roommate, Jeanine, had found The Sound of Music on the dorm TV, and everyone who attempted to pass by that central location was instead drawn in, like iron filings to a magnet, until half the girls of Althorp House were clustered there—thick organic chemistry book closed on an expectant finger, pillowcase stuffed full of laundry frozen on a hip.

During the movie's one commercial break—would we have even considered it otherwise?—a phalanx swarmed in from the men's dorm across the quad. It was the final quarter, their leader gasped, and their television had just spontaneously combusted. "Or it could've had something to do with Muscles here pounding on the damn thing," he confessed, hooking a thumb at a short, skinny guy trying to hide behind a large, sheepish grin.

It must have been their desperation that persuaded us to change the channel, or maybe we suddenly recalled that we shouldn't be watching TV anyway. A few girls, released from the Von Trapps' apple-cheeked spell, shook their heads and wandered off. The rest of us found ourselves transformed into instant fans, cheering as fervently as if basketball were the sole reason for our presence on that red-brick campus, the purpose of our steep tuitions and student loans.

One of the invaders was Danny. He had curly, sand-colored hair and seawater green eyes behind round, wire-rimmed glasses, and when he compared our starting center to Byron, I sidled up closer to where he stood. After the come-from-behind victory, I made sure I was in the group that hiked over to the Union for pizza, and then Danny and I split off, scouting the streets off campus because he'd run out of cigarettes and I said I had too—although until then I'd only been filching the occasional smoke from Jeanine.

It was funny, I mentioned back in the deserted commons room, where we faced each other cross-legged on the couch, that he was Daniel, because Nellie was short for Daniella. "You know, we could give up our i's," I said, "and go with the tilde: Dañel"—I drew a little squiggle in the air—"and Dañella." As I started to make another, he leaned forward and kissed me. And how could a romance begun that balmy night not blossom? Our team always won; they swept through a whirlwind tour of victories, the conquering forces marching up and down the East Coast and then hopscotching west, subduing every challenger in the nation. And it was all for us, because we were young and in love.

Now, when I say I was a basketball fan, what I really mean is that I was an English major. So whenever I momentarily dug my way out from under the pile of voluminous reading, the last thing I wanted to do was flog my brain on another topic. Nevertheless, I did pick up a host of stats through simple osmosis, my mind being conditioned for memorization. I'll probably go to my grave unable to dislodge the useless datum of Bobby Stillman's senior-year free-throw percentage: 89.8. (It was exceptional.) But I never took B-ball seriously.

The beauty of college basketball, like a new relationship, is that it's fast, it's exciting, and you don't even have to understand the rules to enjoy it. You just watch the herds of Modigliani men lope from one end of the court to the other, and then you either cheer or groan when the big orange sphere drops through the hoop or doesn't. None of it demands examination.

Our team won the championship that year and cleaned up again the next, and then Danny and I graduated and squired our little English degrees to New York City, where we scratched our way into menial jobs in the publishing industry. We moved in together, into a cramped chicken coop of an apartment on what we referred to as the Upper West Side. It was, in fact, the way Upper West Side, the border where the middle-class assurances of Broadway change over to "Nellie, honey, your father and I would like you to call home every night, just so we know you're safe." Our friends, of course, insisted that it was a great find. Jeanine gushed over the gleaming black tile trim in the bathroom, ignoring the fact that when you sat on the toilet, your knees grazed the tub, and bypassing the tiny triangular porcelain object in the corner, a mere metaphor for a sink.

There, removed from the bucolic green of the college quad, sprung from under the weight of seven centuries' worth of Anglo-Saxon classics, we discovered Manhattan: clubs and museums and Fifth Avenue, art galleries and architecture and China-town. With the rent for our miserable hovel sucking us dry, we became experts on the cheap and the free: Indian restaurants, sidewalk vendors, and the pink marble public plaza at Trump Tower, which always blew our out-of-town friends away.

After a year we got modest raises, and then Danny's father gave us a small black-and-white television set, a Christmas gift. Danny, self-consciously slumming at first, also picked up a daily New York Post habit; he'd peruse the thick sports section every morning on the subway ride downtown.

I don't remember noticing quite when Danny traded Walter Pater for Walter Payton, aesthetics for athletics. In those early days, despite the Continental Divide of manuscripts the editorial peon was expected to scale each week, I was still attempting to extend my education, frowning over cobblestones like Spenser's The Faerie Queene before bed at night. "You avert your eyes like a nun at a strip club," Danny teased about the stiff-necked way I ignored the little TV. He watched it only while I was busy with something else—cooking dinner or talking on the phone, or visiting my family in Westchester. I'd catch snippets while passing through the living room as my nylons soaked, one pair at a time, in the tiny tooth sink; it appeared there were more sports than just college basketball. There was football and baseball, and then our little TV sprouted an umbilical cord and MSG and ESPN flowed in, delivering boxing, hockey, soccer, curling, martial arts, rodeo, and surfing—as well as competitions where huge slabs of men in harnesses towed actual tractor trailers.

Most evenings we went out, usually to meet friends. We stayed in the dismal little apartment only when the weather was horrendous or when our cruel bosses, evidently having confused us with veal steaks and themselves with chefs, had pounded us flat. Sometimes we'd lie on the futon bed side by side, doing a two-pen version of the Sunday Times crossword.

The next fall, Danny's kid brother made starting quarterback on his high school football team. Danny was proud of him, and we took the train out to Jersey for a home game. When the opposing players tackled Glenn, there was a thud, the loud, hollow sound of the impact audible up into the bleachers. "Oh my God." I turned to Danny, aghast. "Is he hurt?" Danny put his arms around my shoulders and squeezed me. "It's okay," he said. "That's just football." In a moment Glenn jumped up and took his position for the next down.

Then Danny's sister, Anita, got engaged and started planning her wedding. She told Danny that she was thinking of asking me to be one of her bridesmaids—she needed to load up her retinue to match the groom's, which included a best man and six brothers. I really didn't want to do it. I barely knew her, was more than a little intimidated by her, and, frankly, we'd always struggled for even the simplest conversation. Actually, the only member of Danny's family I'd had much luck with was Glenn. He'd stayed with us in the city one weekend after the football season, and as we'd taken him around to the sights—the top of the RCA building, the Village, McSorley's Old Ale House—he'd kept up a campaign to get us to quit smoking, reaching for each freshly lit cigarette as though he wanted a drag, then snapping and unrolling the paper tube so that all the fragrant brown tobacco spilled out. He persisted in this until Sunday afternoon outside Penn Station, when the tips of Danny's ears turned red with annoyance. It was irritating, and yet Glenn had done it sweetly, and he and I had laughed every time, even when it was my much anticipated smoke he was deconstructing.

Anita did ask me, and I got fitted for the dress, my first in a string of puff-sleeved pastel polyester beauties. Danny and I skipped work the Friday of the big weekend, rented a car, and drove over the George Washington Bridge. Since the rehearsal wasn't until that evening, we dumped our stuff at the motel and went out for a pleasure cruise around the suburbs, marveling at the natural beauty. (When you've lived in Manhattan long enough, even New Jersey looks like Big Sky Country.) After a brief conversation with a gas-station attendant, Danny reported that there was a huge sporting complex only twenty minutes away. "You won't think this will be fun, Nella," he said, "but I promise you, it will." Then he brought me to the batting cages and tried to teach me to hit.

In the little metal-framed stall there, everything took on a fun-house scale: the bat was thicker than my skinny stick arms, the ball appeared minuscule and impossible to track, and it hurtled at me at a speed I found more or less terrifying. I gamely hung in, Danny coaching me patiently on form and technique, and I tried to pretend that my pathetic flailings were not plainly visible to the dozens of people in and around the cages. Then I watched Danny bat, and when I tried to imitate him, I managed to foul off a couple of pitches. Excited by this, I insisted that we stay, and Danny pumped the machine full of quarters until I'd finally had the satisfaction of a short line drive.

The next day, of course, I woke up corkscrewed around like a fusilli pasta noodle, all those virginal muscles clenched up tight. With my head and body now facing different directions, I looked like a horse that refuses to turn no matter how hard the rider pulls on the reins.

At the wedding, everyone called me the "twisty bridesmaid." Danny's drunken aunt, apparently confusing me with someone else and evidently fresh out of tact, asked if I was having any luck with the scoliosis treatments. I took about fifteen Advils—the new wonder drug—drank a truckload of champagne, and ran (or, rather, spiraled) around, cheerfully dispatching my bridesmaidly duties. I really wanted to fit in with Danny's family. Anita and I even hugged tearfully before she sped off in the getaway car.

In the morning, I was awakened by the brutality of my own hangover. The slightest motion set off a violent clanging in my head, Quasimodo tolling those massive bells until I longed to jump from the tower myself. It was three years before I could face another Advil.

 

Right around then, Danny finally succeeded in growing the mustache that had eluded him throughout college. It came in full and thick, a couple of shades darker than his khaki hair. We had moved into a nice but noisy apartment right on Broadway, but at least we no longer lived with roaches the size of turtles. Danny was working at Simon & Schuster, in the marketing department. I, having clung to the editorial track, had then wrangled a promotion to assistant editor by risking both my career and my rent money: I'd taken a job at Pantheon, a company so committed to its literary and political ideals that the rest of the industry was placing bets on when it would fold.

One night that fall, we went to Brad and Sonia's apartment to watch a ball game. Actually, the three of them watched the game; I kept moseying over to an adjacent wall, distracted by their bookshelves. Sonia was a graphic designer, but Brad had just left S&S for a Ph.D. program at NYU. He had all sorts of esoterica, including a volume of Derrida—absolutely impenetrable stuff, yet much talked about, and I couldn't help thinking what a splash I would make at the office if I could quote a bit of it.

I should have been watching the game. It seemed to matter to Danny, but then he was the type of fan who believed that loyalty demanded polarizing. Since he loved the Yankees, he hated the Mets. In the world of polarity, being a Yankee fan also meant hating L.A., the Dodgers being the Yankees' semblable on the opposite coast. One of the funniest things he'd ever seen was a guy sitting at a bar watching a Lakers-Knicks game, quietly transforming the convention bureau's omnipresent "I love New York" jingle into a gentle, melodic "I hate L.A."

Now, normally he'd detest Boston too, the BoSox being the Yankees' longtime chief rival. But the rules of polarity dictate that if it's Mets versus Red Sox, the Yankee fan must support the Sox; at least they're in your own league, and consequently their win will reflect positively on your team.

Right there I should have realized what that matchup meant. See, it was autumn and two teams from different leagues were playing.

But I didn't. All evening, while we'd been eating the Italian hoagies Sonia had brought up from Little Italy and drinking beer, while Danny had been pacing in front of the TV, I'd been dipping into Derrida, looking up now and again to slip in an apt one-liner. Despite my foray to the batting cages, baseball had never seemed like a real sport to me. The way I saw it, the players mostly stood around a lot, and they wore belts, and some of them, frankly, were more than a little overweight.

As the game was winding down, Danny stood up, tilted back the last of a bottle of Bud, and announced, "I can't watch this crap anymore. Let's go."

And I should have gone. Should have just leapt up, shrugged on my jean jacket, and walked out the door. But I'd had a couple of beers myself and we had a thirteen-block walk ahead of us, so I went another way.

"Sure," I said. "I'm just going—"

I actually said this right then, though in retrospect it seems extravagantly insane.

"Sure," I blithely said, "I'm just going to run—"

"I'm just going to—"

"Just going—"

"Just—"

"Sure—"

"I'm just going to—"

God forgive the ignorant, for they know not what they do.

"Sure," I said, "I'm just going to run to the bathroom."

And I did, walking the length of Brad and Sonia's long, narrow railroad flat, then lingering in the bathroom, still looking at the Derrida, because their toilet wouldn't stop running until you jiggled the handle just so. When I returned, Danny was standing in front of the TV, cursing it and jabbing the red ember of his cigarette at some unseen assailant inside. "I can't believe you made me see that," he accused, spinning on his heels, his seawater eyes cold as the North Atlantic.

"What?" I said blankly. "What's wrong?"

Danny cursed again and crushed out his cigarette in a glass ashtray and looked at me like an ex-con seeking vengeance.

"What?" I put down the book. "It's just a game, right?"

But it wasn't just a game: it was the bottom of the tenth in the sixth outing of the World Series. Boston was ahead three games to two, which meant that if they won tonight, they'd win it all, right then and there, and end Danny's agony. The Red Sox had advanced in the top of the inning, but in the bottom the Mets had pulled even. It was 5–5 with two outs and two strikes and Boston, the favorite, was one pitch away from ending the inning, then coming up to bat and finishing off the Mets for good.

Only right then, while I'd merely performed a routine biological function, the necessary evacuation of accumulated fluid from a flexible vessel, Mookie Wilson, with two strikes against him and nothing to hope for, had tapped off a little grounder that should have been an easy out. Except that a Boston first baseman named Bill Buckner flubbed it. In an infamous sequence that will be replayed on television and video as long as Western civilization endures—that is probably being broadcast, via SETI, from the deserts of New Mexico to the reaches of the galaxy, because any intelligent life form would understand the vital significance of it—Buckner dropped his hand toward the ground, leaned in to make the scoop . . . and then watched, bewildered, as the ball passed underneath his glove and rolled between his legs.

The Mets scored on this error; they won the game and would have a shot at the championship the next night. And Danny and I—this, especially, he had hoped to miss—straggled down Broadway through the gauntlet of a sort of anti-parade, throngs of jubilant Mets fans spilling out of bars, crowding both sides of the avenue, cheering, yelling, pumping their awful fists in the air.

Beside me, Danny gave off a palpable charge, like a black hole imploding on itself, silently boiling. I was shocked by how deep this went with him. I'd never seen him so . . . so what? Upset? Angry? I didn't even know. His face was a funny brick-red color, and he wouldn't talk all the way home, although he did manage to incinerate three Winstons in less than fifteen minutes.

Some women have this experience after, say, their husband has an affair, or suddenly hauls off and wallops the kid, or—I saw this in the newspaper the other day, where a man got arrested for major embezzlement, a complicated multiyear scheme, and his wife, learning of it, said, "I feel like I don't even know him." As we plowed through the crowds on Broadway, Danny's head down, his skin that odd red-brown, I thought that. I had no idea who he was. I understood that he didn't like the Mets, but he didn't like Boston either. How could a game between two teams you didn't like matter so much? Could he actually—this was beyond me—"hate" the Mets?

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2005 issue.

—EFQ

 

BONNIE THOMPSON has previously been published in the High Plains Literary Review. She is currently at work on a novel.

© 2005 Bonnie Thompson

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